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Tribute To A Numerical Inorganic Icon: Kenneth Wade

University of Durham chemistry professor Kenneth Wade, famously known for the borane electron-counting rule that bears his name, passed away on March 16 at age 81. Chemists at the University of Nottingham, led by big-haired chemistry professor Martyn Poliakoff, have prepared a lovely video tribute to Professor Wade as part of their Periodic Table of Video series.

wadeChemists use electron-counting rules to determine bonding patterns in different classes of compounds, such as the familiar octet rule for first- and second-row elements, the 18-electron rule for transition metals, and the Hückel 4n + 2 rule for aromatic compounds. However, these rules don’t readily apply to electron-deficient molecules such as boranes that utilize multicentered bonding–a pair of electrons shared between more than two atoms–so other rules have been devised.

In 1971, building on the collective observations of other chemists, Wade formulated his n + 1 rule. Wade’s rule states that a cage molecule with a geometry based on a closed polyhedron constructed of triangles with n vertices will possess n + 1 skeletal bonding electron pairs.

Wade’s rule and its corollaries have been refined and extended by a number of researchers. When coupled with spectroscopic studies and theoretical calculations, these rules have been successful in showing the structural interconnections between boranes, carboranes, other heteroboranes, carbocations, organometallic complexes, and transition-metal cluster compounds.

Hats off to Professor Wade.

Turning A Hollywood Set Into A Laboratory

Much has been made of the meticulously chosen props that decorate the set of AMC’s “Mad Men.” To bring the 1960s world of Don Draper to life—and to make it believable—set designers have gone above and beyond. The phones and typewriters in the office are vintage, genuine magazines from the era sit on tables, and real expense reports for characters cover the desks. Many of these details are never caught on camera, but the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, insists on them being there to lend “Mad Men” authenticity.

Baldacchini stands in his lab at Newport, posing with the faux JPC A cover. Credit: Courtesy of Tommaso Baldacchini

Baldacchini stands in his lab at Newport, posing with the faux JPC A cover. Credit: Courtesy of Tommaso Baldacchini

I don’t think the same amount of ink has been put to paper describing the set design of CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory.” (Although the show has made a certain chemistry shower curtain quite popular.) But I would contend that bringing to life the apartments, offices, and laboratories of a group of geeky scientists who work at Caltech isn’t an easy job either. Sure, it’s not on the same scale as decorating a 1960s advertising agency, but it still requires some skill to illustrate for the public what academic life looks like.

I recently stumbled upon a scientist in California who has, on occasion, lent a helping hand to make the labs of “Big Bang” realistic. Tommaso Baldacchini works for Newport Corp., a well-known international lasers and optics company that has a facility near Burbank. His “Big Break” with “Big Bang” came when the show introduced the character Amy Farrah Fowler, a neurobiologist played by Mayim Bialik.

The show wanted to shoot Amy in her lab dissecting brains, and the props manager needed some plausible-looking microscopes to sit in the background. Baldacchini, whose specialty at Newport is two-photon nonlinear optical microscopy, got the call.
“When the show started, the producers needed a way to fill the labs with scientific instruments,” Baldacchini says. “So they asked their science adviser [David Saltzberg of UCLA] to suggest a local company that could provide parts—and he mentioned Newport.”

Baldacchini (left) and Fourkas (right) visit the set, sitting in Sheldon's living room. Credit: Courtesy of T. Baldacchini and J. Fourkas

Baldacchini (left) and Fourkas (right) visit the set, sitting in Sheldon’s living room. Credit: Courtesy of T. Baldacchini and J. Fourkas

Naturally, Baldacchini’s favorite “Big Bang” episode so far has been one called “The Alien Parasite Hypothesis,” in which Amy and her loveable but narcissistic boyfriend, Sheldon Cooper, sit in front of a microscope set up by Baldacchini (see photo here). “She even refers to it as a two-photon microscope,” Baldacchini says, although he admits it doesn’t look exactly the way one would look in a real lab.

I stumbled into contact with Baldacchini while tracking down the origin of a journal cover I spotted in the background of a “Big Bang” episode (that story’s here). The poster hangs on the wall in Sheldon’s office, and it’s a reasonable facsimile of the Journal of Physical Chemistry A, one of the journals produced by the American Chemical Society.

John T. Fourkas, Baldacchini’s former Ph.D. adviser who is now at the University of Maryland and is also an editor for the Journal of Physical Chemistry, knew Baldacchini sometimes consulted with the show and in 2011 pitched him a version of the journal with Sheldon’s face on the cover. Eventually, the faux JPC A made its way onto the set, where it still hangs.

But the cover isn’t the only prop with staying power that Baldacchini has gotten onto the show. More recently, he orchestrated the placement of a unique chess set—made of laser optics such as gratings, mirrors, and optical mounts—in Sheldon’s living room. “The king is a diffraction grating [an optic that disperses light], and the queen—the most powerful chess piece—is an omnidirectional mirror,” Baldacchini explains.

Baldacchini's optical chess set, lit with lasers. Perhaps the guys on "Big Bang" will devise a new game? Credit: Courtesy of Tommaso Baldacchini

Baldacchini’s optical chess set, lit with lasers. Perhaps the guys on “Big Bang” will devise a new game? Credit: Courtesy of Tommaso Baldacchini

These days, the Newport scientist makes the one-hour drive to Burbank on occasion. “When they call, they usually need the props, like yesterday,” he jokes, “so sometimes I can’t go.” In those cases, the show sends a truck and he loads the equipment needed.

“I think they’re doing a great job making a comedy that works for everybody—whether you’re a scientist or not,” Baldacchini says. Sure, “Big Bang” exaggerates the nerdy aspects of these characters, he adds, but at the same time it’s also depicting how much fun it is to do science. “So I think they’re doing a great job.”

FUN SIDE NOTE: The faux cover of the Journal of Physical Chemistry A was designed to be a Festschrift, or tribute issue, to Sheldon Cooper. During a meeting among the editors of JPC prior to the poster finding its way on set, Fourkas and his colleagues talked over the journal’s policy of never depicting a living person on its cover. George Schatz, editor-in-chief of JPC, “paused for a moment,” Fourkas told me, “and then said with a completely straight face, ‘Well, we make an exception for people who speak Klingon.’ ”

The Facebook of Chemical Elements

“Wonderful Life with the Elements”: Yorifuji illustrates Dmitri Mendeleev’s lifework. Credit: No Starch Press

Admit it. You’ve found yourself on more than one occasion scrolling through your list of Facebook friends, wondering, hey, what ever happened to so-and-so? Then, before you know it, you’re looking at your acquaintance’s profile, learning all about what’s been going on in their life over the past several years. Wow, they had a kid! Neat, they studied in Paris. Eww, Ishtar is one of their favorite movies?? It’s like you’re meeting them again for the first time.

And that’s the experience chemists will have when they open up “Wonderful Life with the Elements: The Periodic Table Personified,” a humorous guide to the chemical elements in which Japanese artist Bunpei Yorifuji reimagines everything from hydrogen to ununoctium as humanlike caricatures. Although it’s an effort targeted at chemistry neophytes (“I’ve created a periodic table that should be a bit more accessible to newcomers,” Yorifuji proudly proclaims at the book’s onset), the playful reimagining of the chemical elements will still delight chemists who know the periodic table like the back of their hand.

Just like the periodic table, Yorifuji’s book catalogs drawings of the chemical elements according to atomic number, placing the artwork alongside quick facts specific to each element. At first glance, Yorifuji’s whimsical depictions of the chemical elements may appear shallow and juvenile. Look, hydrogen has a long bushy beard and is wearing an undershirt! readers might laugh as they look at the first element’s entry. But there’s more to Yorifuji’s drawings than initially meets the eye. In hydrogen’s case, the unkempt facial hair serves as a symbol of hydrogen’s discovery many centuries ago, and the undershirt speaks to the element’s myriad uses (“margarine is hardened using hydrogen,” a nearby caption elaborates). Had hydrogen been discovered in the 18th century, it would have sported a well-groomed beard according to Yorifuji’s criteria. Elements discovered in the 19th century are clean shaven while ones begotten in the 20th century, in a nod to their youth, suck a pacifier. Continue reading →

Musically Gifted & Geeky

Each year around the holidays, we here at Newscripts post a
list of potential gifts for all the science geeks out there. We cull our picks
from the Internetz as well as from fans who write in.

But one gift just came across the Newscripts desk that we
thought merited an early mention because we’d never considered scientifically
decorated musical instruments before.

Behold, the Atom Ukelele! This custom-made string instrument
is available on Etsy from artist celentanowoodworks. More important, the
website says: “If you can dream it, let’s
build it. The possibilities are endless when it comes to instrument building.
Why shouldn’t your instrument be as personal as the music you play?” Crown
ether ukelele, anyone?

And because everyone loves Tom Lehrer’s song, “The
Elements,” here’s a version sung by a 3 year old named Rose. Cute overload in a
good way, or cute overload in a bad way? It’s not for us to say. But we do know
that if this little virtuoso learned to play the Atom Ukelele, she’d be an
unstoppable force.

Periodic Table of QR Codes

I confess: I do not have a smartphone. My smartphonephobia occasionally makes me feel like an oddball, like when I’m waiting for a train or trying to text someone on my dumbphone, but lately I’ve begun to feel like I’m missing out on something.

The elemental videophiles at England’s University of Nottingham have just confirmed my fears. Smartphone users have access to a whole world of videos, thanks to little black and white boxes called QR codes. And the Nottingham chemists have now created an entire periodic table of  them. Check it out:

The Elements Go J-Pop

As we’ve said before, the Newscripts gang will use just about any excuse to post Tom Lehrer’s “The Elements.” Now, Theo Gray has given us a new one. To accompany the new Japanese edition of his “Elements” iPad app, Gray created a Japanese language version of Lehrer’s elemental tune.

As Gray told BoingBoing:

“I have a cousin, Thomas Howard Lichtenstein, who has lived in Osaka for the past 20 years making a living as a lounge singer at night and composer during the day. This turned out to be a remarkably useful fact when I decided that, based on the huge success of The Elements for iPad in Japan, I really wanted to record a translation into Japanese of Tom Lehrer’s elements song. (The entire rest of the ebook had been translated into Japanese: The only things left in English were the song and the spoken element names.)

“I asked my cousin if he could make it sound like a nauseatingly cute Japanese pop song. My exact words were ‘make me think of cats with big eyes.’ Which I think he has clearly achieved.

“I had planned to locate and hire some kind of B-list J-Pop idol to sing it, but he suggested his daughters give it a try, and they did a fantastic job. So the singers are in fact my twin 13-year-old, half-Japanese first cousins once removed. So there you have it, my contribution to increasing the world’s supply of WTF, one song at a time.”

Not only do we love this version’s perfectly odd popiness, but the Newscripts gang reckons Gray’s relatives could easily snag the roles of the tiny twin singing princesses should someone decide to remake Mothra vs. Godzilla.

Instant Elements

The Newscripts gang will use pretty much any excuse to post “The Elements” by Tom Lehrer. This one features Google’s new instant search feature. Enjoy!

(Hat tip to David Bradley over at SciScoop)

A Toast To Tony

Chemistry professor Martyn Poliakoff of the University of Nottingham and his colleagues came up with a brilliant idea a couple of years ago to prepare a series of videos about the elements of the periodic table. If you haven’t checked out the Periodic Table of Videos, you should because they provide a lot of great information delivered in a fun and exciting way. Even if you are a seasoned chemist, you will still learn stuff.

There are only so many elements, though, so Poliakoff and friends expanded the video series to include seasonal chemical videos such as ones about the Chinese New Year and Christmas, as well as videos describing the chemistry behind viagra, the Shroud of Turin, and the Nobel Prizes, among other miscellaneous items. The team also has created a set of videos called The Sixty Symbols that provide an explanation of “the letters and squiggles” used by physicists and astronomers in their scientific writings.

One of the latest videos produced by the Nottingham crew is different–it’s an online tribute. Poliakoff takes time out to eulogize Tony Judt, an acclaimed British historian and Poliakoff’s close lifelong friend who recently died. The video is less about chemistry and more about the joy of living and the joy of discovery, which are intangible elements you won’t find on the periodic table.